IT TAKES A while, but I finally work out what it is they remind me of.
The set isn’t much help, a collection of drums, bongoes and chairs in front of a backdrop of pastel-coloured posters like tie-dyed stained glass framed by washing on clothes lines. The beginning, certainly, wasn’t like anything else I’ve seen before. An elderly wise man – you can tell he’s wise, as he’s not wearing any shoes and has a beard – comes on and announces that we’re about to undergo a, ahem, “musical safari” (perplexingly, this old chap will spend the rest of the show alternating between armchairs, dancing badly and, so far as I can make out, impersonating a variety of root vegetables). The first few numbers are vaguely familiar, some because they’re hits, most because they degenerate, without exception, into the dreary call-and-response aerobics classes incomprehensibly beloved of the hip hop pantheon from De La Soul to Ice Cube.
It’s when one song near the end trails off into interminable shouts of “Revolution! Revolution! Revolution!” that the subliminal flashbacks finally take shape, and there I am – was it really only a month ago? – knee-deep once again in New York state mud, every reflex struggling to retch back the diet of woolly liberal panaceas and one-planet-one-people drivel I’ve been force-fed for three excruciating days. There’s no doubt about it: more than any other band, Arrested Development embody the spirit of Woodstock. Woodstock ’94, that is, with all the daffy cosmic proselytising, smug self-congratulation and determined refusal to see beyond the surface that that entails.
Some of Arrested Development’s twee rhetoric is denied us tonight by the Academy’s infernal acoustics and AD frontman Speech’s unexpectedly characterless voice. It seems safe, however, to assume that they’re not urging the immediate napalming of Port-Au-Prince (Saluting Armchair General Mueller, SIR! – Ed). Or anything remotely controversial or interesting at all, come to that. What does emerge from the morass is every bit as well-meaning, unarguable and platitudinous as you might expect: Unity. Empowerment. Peace. Respect. Revolution.
Of what sort? Against whom? On whose behalf? There’s nothing in the world more cynical than this sort of feelgood grandstanding, gorging yourself on applause for doing no more than stating the blindingly obvious. It’s never less than an appalling spectacle, but it becomes especially repulsive when an ego thus bloated even gets in the way of the songs. But no, even a medley of ‘Tennessee’ and ‘Zingalamaduni’ is employed as nothing more than a soundtrack for yet another bouncing-up-and-down-and-clapping-along session, which must be tremendously gratifying for Speech and the rest of them, but is surely only monstrously irritating for anyone who’s turned up to hear the music, either as fan or curious bystander.
Arrested Development badly need to challenge their own ideas before they can presume to challenge anyone else’s. Certainly, they could learn a thing or three from Public Enemy or Fun-Da-Mental about how great art provokes before it comforts. Hippies.
© Andrew Mueller, Melody Maker, 1 October 1994